Chapter One

 

For several seconds after her former mother-in-law had ended their call, Katie Bonner stared at her phone. What kind of sick joke was this? When Katie’s husband, Chad, had been alive, one hour with Katie had been too much for Margo Bonner—and that hour had been used to make passive-aggressive digs at the woman who could never be good enough for her darling Chad.

And now—now?—after Chad had been dead for nearly two years, Margo would be “passing through” and wanted to spend a couple of days with Katie? Why? And even stranger, why had Katie agreed to host the persnickety woman in her tiny one-bedroom apartment? She could’ve said no, could’ve made up an excuse, could’ve suddenly booked a one-way ticket to Bolivia.

But she’d found herself saying, “Sure, that’ll be fine.”

Fine.

Why in the world…?

Because of Chad. Because I still miss him, too.

Katie sighed as she pushed away from her desk. She grabbed a peppermint from the jar before heading out of her office at Artisans Alley, her long skirt swishing as she walked. She, and the rest of the vendors, was dressed in nineteenth-century garb for the Dickens Festival, the Alley’s second-annual celebration of the holiday season. The vendors of Victoria Square had also adopted the custom—and it was paying off in spades.

Since Katie had taken over the running of the former applesauce warehouse now known as Artisans Alley—Chad’s pet project—it had grown from being an unorganized, failing group of artisans to a profitable configuration of artists and vendors. Maybe that was another reason Katie hadn’t refused Margo’s offer. She wanted her former mother-in-law to see what she’d done with her son’s legacy.

“Katie, Vance just called,” said Rose Nash, the spryest seventy-something-year-old Katie had ever met. Today, she was manning cash desk one, a cute bonnet covering her blonde curls, her blue eyes sparkling with pleasure. “His church’s choir will be here to sing on Saturday from one until four. Oh, I can’t wait to hear those heavenly voices filling the alley with song.”

Katie smiled. The customers loved it, too. “That’s great. I was just going over to the tea shop for a minute. May I bring you back anything?”

“Oh, no, thanks. It’s um….” Rose scrunched up her softly wrinkled face. “I’ve heard complaints about the food, and they don’t seem to be doing much business lately.”

Rose had a point. ’Twas the season, and all the other businesses in Victoria Square were bustling. From what Katie could see as she walked across the parking lot, there wasn’t a single customer inside the tea shop. Something was definitely going on there. Two months ago, the tea shop seemed to have been thriving. Now, when it should have been at its busiest, the place was as dead as Jacob Marley.

Although the bell over the door tinkled merrily when Katie walked into the shop, no one came out to greet her right away. It gave her the opportunity to consider the display case. There were some blueberry scones, but they looked slightly burned around the edges. Some miniature chicken salad croissants looked okay, but she wondered how long they’d been sitting there.

Francine Barnett finally emerged from the back of the shop sliding her palms down the front of her soiled white apron. “Hi, Katie. How are you?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Will you be open late for the lighting of the big Christmas tree on the Square on Saturday night?”

“I don’t think so.”  Francine looked as though she’d been through the wringer. Her light brown eyes were red-rimmed as though she’d been crying, and black circles were evident on her pale skin. “Is anything wrong?”

She sighed. “It’s that obvious, huh?”

Katie chose my words carefully. “Probably not to anyone but me. You always seem lively and upbeat, but today….”

“Today I look like I’ve been crying my eyes out? That’s because I have, dear. When we bought this place, Vonne swore to me that she’d help me run Afternoon Tea—that together we’d make it a grand success. And we did for a few months. Then Vonne got bored with it. It’s too much for me to handle by myself, Katie.”

She began to cry, and Katie hurried around the counter to put an arm around her and lead her to one of the tables. She pulled out a chair and eased her into it.

“Everything will be all right,” Katie said. “May I get you some tea?”

Francine laughed through her tears. “See? You’re better at this than I am. Why don’t you buy the shop? I’m sure you could make a success of it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re just upset.”

“I’m not,” she said. “I’ve actually been considering putting the tea shop up for sale now for weeks. I remember your telling me once that you’d once considered running a bed and breakfast. Wouldn’t a tea shop be the next best thing?”

Katie had wanted to serve afternoon tea at her B&B, The English Ivy Inn. But she’d been rudely awakened from that pipe dream when Chad had invested so much of their money into Artisans Alley and then died in a car accident, leaving her to make the best of “their” investment. She looked around the shop. There were so many things she could do to spruce up the place: fresh paint in a light pink with burgundy trim…delicate floral curtains….

“Katie!”

She snapped out of her reverie and apologized to Francine. “You caught me wool-gathering.”

“I caught you considering the possibilities.”

Katie inclined her head. “You did. But I’m not sure buying a tea shop is a viable option for me right now.”

“Of course, it is! Look how you’ve turned around Artisans Alley in such a short amount of time. You’d have no problem here. You’d simply take over the lease, buy out our inventory and equipment—”

“Which might not be as easy as you make it sound,” said Katie. “Getting a bank loan is no small feat.”

“I know, but at least say you’ll consider it.”

“I…Have you talked with Vonne? Is she willing to give up the shop?”

Francine scoffed. “I don’t know where Vonne’s head is these days, but she certainly isn’t concerned with the day-to-day running of this shop. I’m the one who put up the capital to open this place, and I’m the one who’s going to sell it.”

The thought gave Katie pause. Could she make a go of the tea shop? What would the vendors at Artisans Alley say? Would they think she was abandoning them?

The bells over the door signaled a new arrival.

Francine dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “Thank you for listening, Katie. Let me greet the detective, and I’ll get you your tea.”

Detective Schuler strode over to meet Francine. With his thumbs tucked into his belt, he appeared to be ever so full of self-importance. Sure, it was great that he’d been promoted from deputy, but that promotion had only come because Ray Davenport had retired from the force.

“I’m sorry, Francine, but this is not a social call,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the tables. “I think you should sit down for this.”

Naturally, that soothed Francine’s nerves as well as you might imagine it would.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Is there somewhere we can speak privately?” Detective Schuler asked.

“Say whatever you came to say in front of Katie. It’s not like all of Victoria Square won’t hear whatever it is by sundown anyway.” She glanced at Katie. “I’m not saying you’d mention it, but gossip just seems to spread around this place like warm butter.”

Katie nodded her understanding.

“All right then. Well…it’s Vonne.”

“I figured as much.” Francine shook her head. “What now? Reckless driving? Another DUI? Can I even bail her out this time?”

“Um…actually….”

Detective Schuler’s bravado seemed to have left him.

“Well…there was an accident. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but Vonne is dead.”

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